Chapter 22:

End of the Beginning

The Lindwyrm

All of us gather on the bridge of the Nidhoggr one last time before we leave the system. It is me, Tiamat, Poisonseed, Glover, Sora, Crow, Firebird, Mitul, Kasana and Crazy Horse. I've already to put Crazy Horse in charge of the Skoll and made Mitul the new captain of the frigate that I had decided to salvage. It is currently being towed by the Nidhoggr. Everybody knows that it is a demotion but I wasn't cruel enough to exclude him from this final meeting.

"Crow," I say. "I'd like to thank you for all your efforts during this operation. It would not have been possible without you."

The black niao shrieks a laugh. "No problem. It was fun. Don't hesitate to call me the next time you're looking to fuck with the niao navy." With another cackle, he signs off.

I look at my captains. "You as well." I put a hand on Poisonseed's shoulder. "Poisonseed has trained you beyond my wildest expectations. This was our first real operation and I couldn't be prouder of all of you." Kasana and Crazy Horse snap salutes. There are tears in Crazy Horse's eyes. Glover smirks at me and Sora nods with a large grin. Poisonseed covers my hand with hers. Only Mitul seems sour, though that's not a surprise. I'll have Poisonseed watch him. Perhaps arrange a mishap or something if he proves unable to accept his new place in the hierarchy.

"This is the end of Fenrir's Revenge. We've hit the niao hard and embarrassed them. This is only the first step but we accomplished it. You know your assignments from here. We'll need to let the niao simmer now. We'll disappear without the niao even scoring a minor victory against us. Their own news media will keep the fires of fear alive. Rest, repair your ships, train replacements for the brave souls we lost. When the time is ripe, I will return to you and we will attack the niao once more."

"Yes, my lord! I will not let you down!" With a vicious salute, Crazy Horse disappears.

Kasana follows her with small smile. "I look forward to our next operation, my lord."

"As you will. My lord," Mitul says carefully. Then he too signs off.

Glover barks a laugh. "Not a bad speech, Lindy." He saunters away.

Sora scowls at him and then turns to me. "I'll keep him in line, my lord." Then she trembles and, almost as if she can't help herself, Sora leaps into the air and then gives me a hug. I'm so startled that I almost take a step back. If she notices the missing arm, she doesn't say anything. She takes a step back and blushes lightly. "I'm sorry, Lord Lindwyrm, but I just wanted to thank you. We actually did it. We handed the niao a real defeat and I got to be a part of it."

I lay my hand on her shoulder. "We'll do more than that."

"I know it. We all have faith in you, Lord Lindwyrm." She gives my hand a squeeze and then goes and joins Glover.

Poisonseed seems as surprised as I am by Sora's outburst of enthusiasm. "That was interesting," she says.

"I'm glad she's so happy," I say. "I know I gave her a difficult and thankless task."

"She knows that you and me appreciate her. I think that is enough."

"I hope so," I say. "And I hope you know how proud of you I am for all of this. I may have planned this operation but I never could have pulled it off if you hadn't trained our Yggdrasil soldiers as incredibly well as you have. There is nobody more essential to me than you."

Poisonseed looks down. "Thank you for your kind words, my lord. Even if I am unworthy of them."

I shake my head. "Why would you say that, Poisonseed? Everything I said was the truth. You are my right hand. I could never replace you." Not unless I had to.

Poisonseed wipes at her eyes. "You are too kind, my lord."

"Not true." I tip up her chin and she stares directly into my eyes and despite the hideous mask I am wearing, I see nothing but fierce loyalty and adoration. "Make them strong, Poisonseed. I will need them soon."

"I will, my lord," she whispers. Then she bites her lip. "Are you sure you have to leave us so soon?"

"You know I do. There is much for me to prepare. That is why I need you, Tien."

She trembles. "Yes, my lord. Please take care of yourself."

"I will see you soon." With that, I take my leave. Tiamat follows my lead and we go to the Toxin. Tiamat takes the helm and we leave from the bay of the Nidhoggr. I watch as the Storm King enters the gate, followed my Hati and Skoll and all the other small ships from our fleet. Nidhoggr, towing the damaged frigate, is last. Then we go. Crow heads wherever he is going but my own fleet scatters as well. They will all make for the same destination, eventually, but on three different paths. All three fleets will send scouts out ranging ahead and take refuge in empty systems should they come across any niao forces. It will be a dangerous journey but I have faith in my soldiers to make it safely.

The Toxin, fortunately, is such a small ship that it won't come under any real suspicion as long as we follow protocol in coming across the niao navy. I've rigged our transponder to send out phony information as well. So I just tell Nailah to fly us home, only waking me if we come across any niao vessels. I spend most of the trip sleeping. My body can go a long while without sleep and take a lot of punishment but I am about at my limit. Nailah only wakes me up once, to see how I handle the niao. After that, she is handles things herself.

I must admit that it feels good to step back into the Moonbase. Though Nailah tells me that we have to change the name. I don't really want to. It's a moon and a base. The name seems fine to me. It's been so long that Malice initially runs away when he sees me. My feelings are actually a little hurt when Nailah manages to coax him out before I can. Now that Nailah has a VI of her own, I give her full access to the house. I cook us a large dinner. Mongolian barbecue. It feels nice to lose myself in the simple pleasures of cooking. And Nailah's help more than makes up for my missing arm.

While we eat, I turn on one of the new feeds to see how the niao are reacting to what we've done on the Crescent. It's the same niao female that we watched before, after the first of our attacks. That seems so minor now. The niao anchor looks exhausted. "So, while the Crescent is once again secure and the garrison is more than double what it was before, none of the principal suspects have been found. In fact, it seems as if they've disappeared completely once more." She waves a hand and the sigil of Yggdrasil appears beside her. Then it dissolves into a snarling visage of the Lindwyrm. Beside it appears a picture of Crow. "These are the suspected principles of the terrorist attack. We are joined by..." Some name that invokes something like a warm summer breeze. Though the niao woman, with her tight grey and violet crest, hardly seems to channel the name.

"Thank you." The niao points at the two pictures. "I notice something here. The two suspects, the two captains of the battleships, neither one has a human face. I think that means something. They are using the idea of pushing niao off Earth as a cover. You saw how many humans died during the massacre on the Crescent. These people are no freedom fighters."

"You're crazy," another niao breaks in. He must have been introduced earlier. His head and shoulders fill the frame. His crest is a glossy black and yellow. "This whole thing reeks of the kind of the kind of unfocused terrorism that brutish creatures like humans would engage in."

The niao female spits him with a glare. "Unfocused? Look at the effort and energy it took to execute this attack! I could almost call it elegant, if it wasn't so horrifying."

"You've got a sick idea of elegant then. This was a nasty, vicious, brutish, pointless attack. Monkeys throwing stones at their superiors."

"I knew you were an idiot but that is the stupidest thing you've ever said!"

"Now, now," the anchor broke in. "Let's not lose our tempers."

I flip the feed and a niao with a messy crest of red and white appears. "I told you all this would happen!" he is shrieking. "All our hubris catching up with us. We niao stomp across the stars and act like every planet is our own. We should have learned our lesson when the nephilim rebelled against us. The greed of the oligarchs knows no limits, however. Who cares if a few thousand niao lose their lives and an entire race of sentient creatures is used up as fuel for the 'great empire?' The oligarch's in their crystal mansions sure as hell don't. All they see is credits flowing in. All they care about is bettering their position on the capital. We're all being manipulated here! Niao, human, drut, all of us. You think the government gives any more of a damn about you than they do a human? We're all tools! Tools to those corrupt, fat—" I flip the feed again.

A stately niao with a grey and blue crest gestures to a hologram. It is of the niao battleship I codenamed Screwed. Another niao, with a pink and blue crest watches attentively. "There are things we are not being told," the grey and blue crested niao says.

"What do you mean?" the other one asks gamely.

"Watch." The niao plays the hologram and it shows the Screwed reverse course and barrel into the heavy defense station, causing both of them to tear apart in a series of explosions. "Now, why did that happen?"

"The report is that some of the Yggdrasil marines boarded the ship and sabotaged it."

The other niao clucks with disapproval. "That is exactly what I mean. How could a small force of humans possibly take over a great battleship like this one? Firstly, how could they overpower the much larger force of niao on board? Secondly, how could they overcome all of the computer protections that should have made this sort of collision impossible? Thirdly, how could they do all of this so fast? It is impossible."

"So what are you suggesting?"

"Sabotage is the answer. Yes, sabotage but not from any outside force of humans. That ship was sabotaged by members of its own crew!"

"But for what purpose?" the other niao gasps, not quite convincingly shocked.

"That is the question. There could be many answers." I change the feed once more.

This time we are greeted with a large niao with a great bronze and silver crest. "This is what we get for our kindness!" he screams. "We brought civilization to those damned monkeys and this is how they repay us! I say that we crush another city and another and another until this so-called Lindwyrm is handed over to the authorities. Humanity has been a pebble in our eye since the moment the first niao set foot on that shithole they call a home planet. Look how many of them end up as labor prisoners. They have no regard for law or even common decency! They are animals and we were better off when they were confined to one planet. Our government needs to deal with these bastards before they can act again. But will they? I doubt it! Not if it costs the oligarchs a damn cent!" I mute the feed and eat another bite of food with a small smile.

"Jesus," Nailah says. "You've really got them riled up. They're all talking about you." I give her a smirk. "They don't seem all that scared though. More angry and upset."

"Don't be fooled. Fear and anger and hate are all tied together." I tab the side of my plate with my fork. "Nailah, do you know why fleas are so dangerous to dogs?"

Nailah looks at me quizzically. "I haven't seen a dog since I was twelve, Lind."

"But you know what a dog is, right?" I ask, a tad annoyed. "And fleas."

"Sure, sure." Nailah moves a shred of meat around her plate. "Why would fleas be dangerous to dogs?" she murmurs. "Do they carry disease?"

"Yes, but most of their diseases are more dangerous for humans than for dogs."

Nailah shrugs. "Then I don't know."

"A flea can be painful and itchy," I say. "It isn't actually a threat to the dog but enough flea bites will drive a dog mad. He will tear himself up trying to get those damn fleas. If he could ignore the fleas, they would be nothing more than an irritant but it's impossible. It is nature. The dog can't leave it alone. It doesn't have the rational capacity to do so. The fleas could never truly harm the dog but they can drive the dog to harm itself."

"So we're fleas, huh?" Nialah says with a grimace.

"The first step to accomplishing anything is to be honest with yourself."

"You said that the dog has no rational capacity to stop itself. I know you don't think that highly of the niao but they aren't that stupid."

"An individual niao might be intelligent. Even a few niao together. But a crowd? A city? A nation? An empire?" I shake my head. "These things are not. They are reactionary and irrational. The basest emotions of the herd rule."

Nailah frowns a little with confusion. "That's pretty harsh, Lind. You could say the same thing about humans."

"You absolutely could," I agree.

Nailah squints at me. "You know, Lind, I never thought about it before, but what are you planning to do after this? If you win and niao leave Earth, I mean."

I pause, thinking about my answer. "I really haven't thought about it much," I finally lie. "I have to pour everything into taking down the niao. I don't have time to consider anything else." The skeptical look on Nailah's face tells me how well that went over. I shrug and go and pour myself a tumbler of scotch. I'll keep my peace for now. Nailah begins to play with Malice, silently telling me that she'll leave me alone. For now.

I check my messages and see that I have one from Nadja. I almost connect with her right away but then I remember that Nailah is in the room. This is uncomfortable. Now I'm going to have to start worrying about who I call and what they might say? Troublesome. "Nailah," I say. "I'm going to head outside for a little while. It's been a long time since I recharged my batteries."

"Sure," Nailah says and then, "Ow! You little bastard." She was playing with Malice by touching him on different parts of his body while he twisted around and tried to bite or claw her. He finally got her.

I laugh and head up to the top of the base. There I deploy my satellite as per usual and then contact Nadja. She answers right away. "Hachimantaro. Finally getting back to me."

"I was a little busy."

"Aren't you always?" Nadja laughs, her brown bob of hair bouncing. "Well, I've got good news for you, my friend. The exact coordinates of Black Flynn's formerly secret little hideaway."

"Glad to hear it. You're one of the few beings in this galaxy that never seems to let me down."

Nadja sticks her tongue out at me. "Flatterer."

"It's earned."

"I hope you have the same attitude when you see the bill," Nadja says lightly. "Anyway, I'll send them to you. Be careful, though. Flynn has gathered a fleet around him like you wouldn't believe."

"Do I strike you as somebody who is afraid of a few pirates?" I ask coolly.

Nadja rolls her eyes. "Put your cock away, Hachi. I'm not joking about this. I've never seen so many pirates anywhere except Port Royal and they've all pledged their loyalty to Black Flynn. I didn't learn the location because of a traitor either." She bobs her head from side to side. "Just a lot of them are really stupid." She brushes her hair back. "I could tail him if you want. Let you know when he is alone. It would cost you some hazard pay but..."

"That's quite alright, Nadja. Just give me the coordinates."

"Aww," Nadja whines. "I wanted to get my ninja on. Nadja the ninja! Yah!" She karate chops the air in front of her.

I sigh. "Thank you, Nadja."

"Hai!" She chops at be again and cuts the signal at the same time.

I lean back against the base of the satellite. I would have to have Nadja give me a full report on who exactly was with Oquendo. She might claim they were all loyal to him but pirates weren't exactly known for their faithfulness. There would be chinks in that armor and I would expose them. Take Flynn's power for my own at the same time I killed him. It was a nice thought. I lift the stump of my arm. A lot do before that, though. Too much.

The elevator whirs and Nailah surprises me by stepping out of it. "What are you doing up here?" I ask.

"Does it bother you?" she asks, scratching her cheek with one finger.

"Not at all." I shake my head.

"I'm glad." Nailah smiles and wanders over, seating herself on my right side. She gazes at the enormous blue star that fills the sky. "It's really beautiful."

"I like it," I say. "I nicknamed it LT."

"What does it stand for?"

"A football player. One that played on a team that was nicknamed 'Big Blue.'" I laugh. "Kind of stupid."

Nailah chuckles too. I enjoy having her close. I'm not sure if things have changed since the Crescent, so I've been hesitant to press things. I'd rather lose her as a lover than risk losing her as a protégé. "No, I think it's clever. Cleverer than 'Moonbase,' anyway."

"Shut up about that already," I say but I can't even pretend to be angry about it. Hesitantly, I lift my arm and drape it over her shoulders. It is a huge relief when Nailah let's her body sag against mine and drops her head to my shoulder.

"So you like football?" she asks.

"The man who raised me did. We watched old games together sometimes, when he was happy with me."

"'The man who raised you,'" Nailah repeats. "That's a little cryptic."

"Nailah..." I take a deep breath and then bend forward, showing her the cord attached to the back of my neck. It is my auxiliary port, since my arm is gone. "I wasn't born like a normal person. I didn't have parents. I was constructed. The man who did so also raised me. He was a lot of things to me but...I don't consider him a father."

Nailah studies the cord connecting me to the satellite. "I see."

"You don't sound that surprised."

She smirks at me. "I don't need to be a fucking quantum mechanic to know that you're not a normal human, Lind."

I drop my hair back over the cord and sit back. "You've got a real foul mouth, you know that?"

"No shit?" She fires back with a grin.

I laugh and let the matter drop. This feels nice. Nailah feels good against me and even though I have dozens of pressing things that I need to do, I feel at peace. I've completed another major step on my path. The path I've been on since I left Earth. Every step has been slow and deliberate but I know it will take me to my destination as long as I keep on it.

I like being out here, looking out into the vastness of space. It reminds me of the endless opportunities the universe presents. You just have to be willing to do what it takes. I've been so many people in my life. A scared little boy, an assassin, a soldier and the Doctor's Monster. A smuggler, a drug dealer, an information broker and the Exile King of Outremer. A mercenary, a knight errant, a pirate and the Hatchet Man Hachimantaro. A leader, a freedom fighter, a terrorist and the Lord Lindwyrm of Yggdrasil. Who knew what I would be going forward? All I knew is that I would be anything and everything it took to achieve my goals.

"Say, Lind," Nailah murmurs. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened to ‘the man who raised you?’"

"Oh, him?" I say casually. "He was murdered." And he didn’t even see it coming.